Saturday, August 13, 2011

Down the Drain

Ever see this?
This one is in Minnesota,
Many of us have seen stencils like this on our local storm drains. But what exactly does it mean?

Exactly what it says. Gutters and storm drains are simple, basic, ancient technology. A hole in the road, a pipe buried in the ground, an outlet at the nearest water body. With very few exceptions, stormwater systems don't run stormwater through any kind of filter or purifier. It's a straight shot: road --> gutter --> catch basin --> underground pipe --> river/bay/harbor.

Which is why scenes like this...
...lead to scenes like this, in Baltimore Harbor:
Story at
...and ultimately contribute to scenes like this, at Kamilo Beach, Hawaii:
Surf's up
Thinking globally & acting locally, how do storm drains work in my part of the world, Saco, Maine? It so happens, Saco has some amazing resources available. One of these is a public Global Information System that plots out all roads, sidewalks, traffic lights, streams, wooded areas, elevations, sewers, and, yes, storm drains! Here is the route from the stream at the edge of our condo, through storm drains passing under houses, then straight down Spring Street to its end in the Saco River.
Does your city/town make this available too?
More and more do all the time.
So this:
Culvert collecting water from bamboo-hidden stream
...wends its way 8 or 9 blocks until it outflows here:
At the foot of a parking lot behind a
nondescript workshop/office
The grates on that stream culvert are large enough to let a beer can or quart-sized plastic jug in. And once they're in, nothing can or will stop them from reaching the river. Even the smaller catch basins still let them in. Bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags, tennis balls, tiddly-winks, chew toys, pacifiers, plastic flowers -- whatever you can picture accidentally (or not) ending up in a gutter -- will reach the river. From there, they will reach the ocean. That's how it works. In Saco, and in most other cities & towns all across the world. That's how this washes up on my beach:
Antifreeze jug, lost into a culvert in mid-Coast
or Downeast Maine, finally reaches Saco Bay
The day I visited my local drain outflow, August 3, was warm, sunny, quiet. The water trickled out lazily. I stood and watched for just a minute. And even then, the predictable sights started plopping out, one at a time.
The usual suspects
This in 1 minute, from a stream/drain system that runs through residential neighborhoods with low foot traffic. I'm going to go back during the next rainstorm, to see what comes out then. Do I really want to know?

New plastic is being added to the Saco River, and Saco Bay, every minute. The same is true the world over. Does the phrase "thrown away" have any meaning when there is no "away"?


  1. Hi Harry! Great blog... right up my alley (no pun intended). ; ^ )

    Two comments/questions:
    On your cigarette experiments, did you consider measuring any of the possibly toxic chemicals (like nicotine) that would be flushed out of the filters into the stormwater (and, hence, the ocean) and do you think that would be a worthwhile endeavor?

    I've lived for 30+ years about 4 blocks due west of the White House in the DC neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (the name comes from the combo of swamp gas and industry located here and in the abutting 'hood of Georgetown at the turn of the 20th Century). What is now Constitution Avenue once used to be a canal (so putrid with trash and garbage--and a breeding ground for malaria--that it was filled in during the first decade of the 1900s), bordered by the marshes of the Potomac River butting up against a huge limestone escarpment, which held up the mainland of DC. Over the last 15 years, much of the street curbing has been replaced with very solid granite curbing abutting a horizontal band of exposed bricks, then asphalt on the roadbed. My street runs N-S, has a fairly steep grade and had all the curbing, etc. replaced about 4-5 years ago. This year, I've noticed that a lot of plant material has grown in the north end of the gutter on the west side of the street. Being a perfectionist, my first impulse was to haul it out but then I had second thoughts. It occurred to me that the dirt and plants might actually be slowing down the stormwater runoff and I should leave it there (but pluck out all the bits of trash). All the storm drains in my immediate area link directly into the Potomac, then the Chesapeake Bay, which has been notoriously polluted for decades. Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated!


  2. Hi! Thanks so much for the note. Let's see if I can help out at all... Re the cigarettes, it's absolutely a worthwhile endeavor to find what's washing out of them. I didn't have the equipment to do it, but some research has been done. Here's one good recent article:

    The trouble has been that up until literally just the last year, there has been almost no regulation on what goes into a cigarette. Lobbyists kept it from being called a food or a drug, so the FDA couldn't control the pesticides, or other procedures being used. Some folks had been testing nicotine levels, etc., but they varied wildly by brand. I think the FDA now has powers to regulate, and the tobacco companies now have to post more of what goes into the product -- and what comes out. Here's the FDA's tobacco site:

    Re the plants in the gutter, that's a really interesting question! I can imagine that they don't look nice. I'm not an expert on how much plants & the space between the bricks could cut down on pollutants. But it does seem that the plant stems & leaves might help keep food wrappers, cigarettes, etc. from reaching the catch basin. And surely some of that water is percolating down into the ground instead of rushing straight to the drain pipes. My gut thought? If it's not too ugly/shabby, let them grow. I wonder if the city did it that way on purpose?

    (Also, thanks for the history of the area. I was actually born in DC, but we moved away from the area when I was a kid, too young to really be interested in learning neat tidbits like that.)

  3. Thank you!! Very helpful direction in both cases. And your comment did make me think about different ways to approach the runoff problem.

    On your supposition about the city doing anything that might be intentionally sustainable, unfortunately our local government is just not equipped for that at this point. It's probably going to take another generation to work through the damage that government corruption--both appointed and elected officials--has wreaked on DC through waste, fraud and abuse.

    However, one visionary local philanthropist, Betty Casey (whose late husband was a wealthy developer) did set up an amazing foundation to restore the DC tree canopy. I've been a "Citizen Forester" volunteer since 2003 with the group and have planted, pruned, watered and inventoried trees all over the city. I can't say too much about this concept.

    More to come!


  4. Great post Harry. My sister Ellen added a link to it on her blog, and I am grateful to you both for the information you are spreading. Hopefully to lots and lots of caring people.

  5. Yikes. I think people need to see those before and after images in order for them to be more concerned with proper inlet filter installation and stormwater protection.